Friday, December 21, 2012

A Medley of Christmas Carols Part IV: I Saw Three Ships

Often things of great beauty have some degree of strangeness in the proportion, and that is certainly true of this beautiful, but odd, carol. 
I Saw Three Ships dates back to the 15th Century, but we are familiar with the 19th Century arrangement by Sir John Stainer.  The song is a traditional English carol, possibly from Derbyshire.  The meaning of three ships in land-locked Bethlehem has puzzled your correspondent for years.  Some scholars believe this carol references the arrival in Cologne in 1162 of the bodies of the Three Magi after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa razed the city of Milan, where the remains of the Magi had rested. 
There are several variant lyrics, including Our Saviour Christ and his lady instead of The Virgin Mary and Christ were there in verse three, and a line that speaks about Mary and Joseph with O, he did whistle and she did sing.
Your correspondent must confess to a particular liking for this carol; I could not explain what I find so compelling, but it is the one that I most often hum to myself.

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day?
And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas day in the morning?

Our Savior Christ and His lady,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
Our Savior Christ and His lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day?
Pray whither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas day in the morning?

O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the angels in Heav’n shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the angels in Heav’n shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the souls on Earth shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the souls on Earth shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Then let us all rejoice amain,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
Then let us rejoice amain,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Medley of Christmas Carols Part III: Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly

Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly is a popular, secular carol of Welsh origin.  Mozart uses a bit of it as the theme of a composition for violin and piano; later, Haydn used it in the song New Year’s Night – proving that great artists only borrow the best.
The words Follow me in merry measure suggest that the singers would dance about as they sang, much as they would in a ring dance, the original meaning of the word carol.
The tune was first found in a musical manuscript by Welsh harpist John Parry Ddall (1710-1782), but is believe to be much older than that.  The version we are most familiar with today was found in The Song Book, edited by John Hullah, published in 1866.  The translated lyrics are attributed to Thomas Oliphant.  The lyrics of 1877 and 1881, known best by contemporary readers, are:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Christmas carol,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
See the blazing yule before us,

Fa la la la la la la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I tell of Christmas treasure,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Sing we joyous all together,
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la la la la la.



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Medley of Christmas Carols Part II: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

We continue our look at the music of Christmas with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  This is one of particularly popular tunes with children, and is familiar to baby boomers as the song sung by Charlie Brown and company at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, first broadcast in 1965.
The words to Hark were written in 1730 by Charles Wesley.  (Wesley’s brother, John Wesley, was the founder of the Methodist Church.)  Charles was probably the most prolific hymn-writer of all time, with more than 6,500 hymns and carols.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is perhaps the most popular.
Wesley’s actual opening line was Hark! How all the welkin rings.  Welkin is a now obscure word meaning sky.  The lyrics were changed 30 years later by another hymn-writer, the Reverend Martin Madan.  They were not set to the current familiar music until 1855, when Dr. W.H. Cummings adapted a tune by Felix Mendelssohn to fit them.  Oddly enough, Mendelssohn said, I am sure that this piece will never do for sacred words.  In fact, he thought the melody best suited for some military theme!  How often are artists bad judges of their own work! 

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;

With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;

Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;

Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display Thy saving power,

Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join

Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:

Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:

O, to all Thyself impart,

Formed in each believing heart.

Wesley’s original version read thus:

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”

Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Medley of Christmas Carols Part I: Silent Night

Manuscript Copy in Gruber's Own Hand

Christmas is our most musical holiday – in fact, Christmas music is on the stereo as I write these words. 
But why is Christmas so musical?  Why are there so many carols, so many popular songs, and so much seasonal music available on the radio, Internet and television?  One reason, perhaps, is that the very language of Christmas is so musical.  The Gospel of St. Luke says that the shepherds in the fields were amazed when an angel came to them and told them of the birth of Jesus.  Luke writes:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.

Most translations read saying rather than singing, but these words are so musical that we can almost hear the heavenly host singing.  In fact, these words have been set to music multiple times.

Christmas songs were sung in the churches of Rome as early as 129 A.D., and St. Jerome mentions carols in the fifth century.  By the 1300s, Christmas songs were sung between the acts of miracle plays performed in church courtyards – a wonderful way of transmitting Biblical messages to a populace with low literacy.
It’s very hard to tell the origins of the earliest carols – the music traveled more widely and faster than any other musical form.  Today’s carol Silent Night, for example, was translated into at least six European languages within 30 years of its composition in 1818.

Perhaps the most popular carol in the world, Silent Night was written in 1818 in small-town Austria by the village priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and his organist, Franz Gruber.
On Christmas Eve that year, Father Mohr noticed that mice had damaged the church organ, making it unplayable.  He wrote the words to Silent Night that afternoon and hurried to the home of his friend, Gruber.  Gruber wrote the music in just a few hours and at midnight mass that evening the two of them sang it, joined by two women and accompanied by a Spanish guitar.  We have been singing it ever since.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse, edited by Robert Haven Schauffler

It’s extremely unlikely that the name Robert Haven Schauffler (1879–1964) resonates in any way with you, but if you are a reader from about 30-to-90 years of age, you have probably read one of his books.
Schauffler was an American writer, musician, war hero and biographer (of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann), as well as editor of a series of books about holidays.

He was born in Austria to missionary parents; his family would later found Schaffler College in Cleveland for Bohemian immigrants who were interested in social or religious work.  He would later serve in the Great War and win a Purple Heart.

In 1907 he wrote a book about Thanksgiving, and his publisher recommended a follow-up book on Christmas.  (He would later write or edit books on Arbor Day, Independence Day, and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln.)  Now, here’s the amazing thing, the book -- Christmas: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse – was first published in 1907.  I have seen editions from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and finally an edition published in the 1970s, which I first read in grade school.  Schauffler’s collection is one of scores of “anonymous” books that are in nearly every school library, well-thumbed by children and adolescents, and then cast aside without a second thought.  It’s now available for free download from Project Gutenberg or 

That’s something of a shame, because Schauffler’s Christmas collection has many good things in it.  Aside from the obligatory Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen, Schaffler has tidbits from writers as diverse as Leigh Hunt, Christina Rossetti, Robert Herrick and William Morris.  If you desire a Christmas bedside reader, you could do no better.

Here is a snippet from another forgotten author, Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846–1916): The world has been full of mysteries today; everybody has gone about weighted with secrets. The children's faces have fairly shone with expectancy, and I enter easily into the universal dream which at this moment holds all the children of Christendom under its spell. Was there ever a wider or more loving conspiracy than that which keeps the venerable figure of Santa Claus from slipping away, with all the other oldtime myths, into the forsaken wonderland of the past? Of all the personages whose marvelous doings once filled the minds of men, he alone survives. He has outlived all the great gods, and all the impressive and poetic conceptions which once flitted between heaven and earth; these have gone, but Santa Claus remains by virtue of a common understanding that childhood shall not be despoiled of one of its most cherished beliefs, either by the mythologist, with his sun myth theory, or the scientist, with his heartless diatribe against superstition. There is a good deal more to be said on this subject, if this were the place to say it; even superstition has its uses, and sometimes, its sound heart of truth. He who does not see in the legend of Santa Claus a beautiful faith on one side, and the naive embodiment of a divine fact on the other, is not fit to have a place at the Christmas board. For him there should be neither carol, nor holly, nor mistletoe; they only shall keep the feast to whom all these things are but the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

More on the holidays next week!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beasley’s Christmas Party, by Booth Tarkington

It is both amazing and sad to your correspondent that American novelist Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) is so little read (and regarded!) today.  Tarkington had a distinctly American voice – a distinctly Midwestern voice – that resonated with turn-of-the-century America in a deep and profound way.  He is one of only three novelists (the others being William Faulkner and John Updike) to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once – but today he is remembered chiefly for The Magnificent Ambersons, which was turned into a now-highly regarded film in 1942 by Orson Welles.
Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana and would eventually graduate from the prestigious Exeter Academy, Purdue University and, ultimately, Princeton.  He came from extremely well-to-do people, but the family lost money during the Panic of 1873 – though eventually they would recoup much of their fortune.  It was this up-and-down experience that would later influence his 1918 novel Ambersons.
It is amazing that a man called “the most significant contemporary American author” by Publisher’s Weekly in 1921 should be so little remembered today.  Perhaps his reputation was usurped by fellow Princeton graduate F. Scott Fitzgerald, a critical assessment that baffles your correspondent as Tarkington is the better writer with the more distinctive voice.  Perhaps it is the sense of wistful nostalgia, a sense of sweetness that makes Tarkington so unpalatable today; his lack of irony and cynicism is distinctly unfashionable in academic circles.
Christmas, and its ability to transform a diverse spectrum of men, was of particular interest to Tarkington, and he wrote of the holiday more than once.  He wrote the novella Beasley’s Christmas Party in 1909, and it was later dramatized by C. W. Munger.  It is available for free at Project Gutenberg or, and is heartily recommended for holiday reading.
The story concerns a journalist who moves to the all-American town of Wainwright, where he befriends Mr. Beasley, a local politician who is sure to run for governor and win.  However, Beasley has taken to talking with imaginary people, and when his political enemies learn this, they dragoon the reporter to witness this eccentricity and report upon it.  The resolution provides wonderful satisfaction, and perhaps not a little envy at political malice so easily erased.
Here is a taste of Tarkington’s prose: It might be difficult to say why I thought it was the “finest” house in Wainwright, for a simpler structure would be hard to imagine; it was merely a big, old-fashioned brick house, painted brown and very plain, set well away from the street among some splendid forest trees, with a fair spread of flat lawn.  But it gave back a great deal for your glance, just as some people do.  It was a large house, as I say, yet it looked not like a mansion but like a home; and made you wish that you lived in it.  Or, driving by, of an evening, you would have liked to hitch your horse and go in; it spoke so surely of hearty, old fashioned people living there, who would welcome you merrily.
It looked like a house where there were a grandfather and grandmother; where holidays were warmly kept; where there were boisterous family reunions to which uncles and aunts, who had been born there, would return from no matter what distances; a house where big turkeys would be on the table often; where on called “the hired man” (and named either Abner or Ole) would crack walnuts upon a flat-iron clutched between his keens on the back porch; it looked like a house where they played charades; where there would be long streamers of evergreen and dozens of wreaths of holly at Christmas-time; where there were tearful, happy weddings and great throwings of rice after little brides, from the broad front steps: in a word, it was the sort of a house to make the hearts of spinsters and bachelors very lonely and wistful – and that is about as near as I can come to my reason for thinking it is the finest house in Wainwright.
It is a perfect house, in fact, in which to spend some reading time this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Art of Rise of the Guardians

Many movie-goers leave an animated film amused or moved or (all-too-frequently) indifferent, but few spare a thought for the incredible amount of work involved in creating it.
Such is not likely to happen with the current animated film Rise of the Guardians, which seems to be the one film to emerge from 2012 that may be a holiday classic for years to come.  One of the most beautifully designed animated films in recent memory, Rise brings to life several of childhood’s most cherished figures, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost.  (Not to mention Pitch, the Boogey Man!)  Such reinvention does not happen without careful artistic consideration or much thinking and re-thinking.
Fortunately for those who cannot get enough holiday spirit (or insight into that remarkable alchemy that is animated films), a new, deluxe coffee table book is there to tell you all you need to know and more.  The Art of Rise of the Guardians details how these iconic figures were reimagined for the film, along with how the many set pieces – from the North Pole to the Tooth Fairy’s palace – were designed.  The book is written by animation historian Ramin Zahed (also editor-in-chief of Animation Magazine), who provides not only an instructive look at the creative process, but also at how large-scale animated films are conceived, produced, nudged-along, and, finally, let out into the world with the best intentions.
This film is, of course, based on the on-going series of books The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce.  Regular Jade Sphinx readers are well-aware of our devotion for this illustrator, writer, animator, and filmmaker, who is on his way to becoming something of a 21st Century Walt Disney.  Joyce provides the preface to the book (Alec Baldwin, the voice of Santa, penned the foreword), where he writes about the Guardians: they have vast, extraordinary domains, they are more than just benign gift-givers, they are great and magnificent heroes who would lay down their lives for innocence and the well-being of children everywhere … It will, I think, make kids believe, and for everyone else, it will remind them of how beautiful and powerful belief can be.
The book then shows everything -- from rough pencil sketches to watercolors to intricate storyboards and special effects shots – a creative team at a world class studio can do to harness that belief.  The Art of Rise of the Guardians is a lavishly illustrated book, but the art is put into perspective by a text showing the creative process.  For instance, we learn that Pitch’s lair is not only influenced by such film noir classics as Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, but also by Venice, Italy.  As Zahed writes, One couldn’t really pick a more appropriate inspiration for Pitch’s home than the melancholy, sinking city of Venice.  The decrepit walls of Pitch’s palace are sliding into the water, and the interiors are covered with mud.  Set in one of the most haunting and beautiful cities in the world, this gloomy Renaissance-style lair is a reminder of the dark turn the villain’s life took hundreds of years ago.

Though the heroes in Rise of the Guardians all have equal time, of course the star turn is that of Santa Claus, perhaps the most famous and beloved Guardian of them all.  The Art of Rise of the Guardians is strongly recommended for believers in Santa Claus (and you know who you are), animation buffs or simply people interested in how intricately-designed, large-scale movies are made. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: Chateau en Espagne

The charming French phrase bâtir des châteaux en Espagne literally means to build castles in Spain, but a closer translation would be to build castles in the sky.  In short, it means to dream something clearly impossible, as is amply demonstrated by Willink’s picture.

This dreamscape illustrates the notions of impossible castles in the sky to moody effect.  As I said earlier with some of Willink’s pictures, while it is not exactly to my taste, the virtuosity on display is without question.

Surely few people of his generation mastered light with such facility.  As with the two earlier pictures, Willink bathes part of his landscape in light, other parts in shadow.  Notice how the parts of the chateau in the background that are illuminated by the sun pop out thanks to the use of shadows along the side.  Willink also uses light to show that the chateau is all façade with no interior – in fact, the crumbled wall facing the viewer could only be part of a ruin. 

Light creeps through the rail columns, leaving shadows at the base of the statue of the Apollo Belvedere.  The base is illuminated, but the statue itself (a great masterpiece now on hand at the Vatican), is shrouded by darkness.

That Willink chooses the Apollo Belvedere is, in itself, of great interest.  It was first discovered circa 1489, and quickly became lionized as a great masterpiece of the Classical world.  The statue’s reputation waxed and waned over the years, and today it is considered one of the great touchstones of classic homoerotic art.  (A judgment that baffles your correspondent, but that’s another story.)  In 1969 the great art critic and historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) wrote: for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world.  It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican.  Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

The landscape seems to play upon one of the great themes in Willink’s work – that of separation.  We noted in two earlier pictures that figures and individuals in Willink’s cluttered world view were often denied the solace of connection.  Here, the chateau and Apollo are divided by a chasm that owes more than a little to Renaissance portraiture.  As with most of these Post Modern games, one gets the impression that Willink is trying to say something, but one is never sure what.

The sky is wonderfully effective and the dramatic import and again fills the viewer with a melodramatic sense of expectation. 

There sure is much to admire in this work – as with most of the Willink corpus – I just wish his vision made a little more sense.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: The Blimp (1933)

Well … wow, what a picture.

First, let’s look at what artist Carel Willink is doing on the lower half of the canvas.  He streaks the ground with both rain puddles and shadows.  These actively work to separate the human figures from the world around them, by accentuating the distances between them and creating shadows that clearly demark distance.  In addition, the houses are largely bathed in shadow; the house on the left seems to stare at the people in the street with a particularly sinister cycloptian eye.

The two (significantly) dead trees point upwards to the sky and the airship.  Clearly the dirigible is the focus of attention, but here Willink again plays his games of mood and atmosphere: the sky, though bright, is still overcast.  The men in the street may be greeting the blimp, but Willink clearly sees this technology as a mixed blessing.

That this is the case is not at all surprising: airships wreaked havoc in Europe during the Great War, creating more effective aerial bombardments than the primitive planes of the time.  For Willink (1900 – 1983), who came to his maturity during the Great War, the 1930s enthusiasm for airships must have been met with mistrust at best and downright hostility at worst.  The brand-new notion of terror from the skies is one that would’ve made its mark.

Let’s look at some other things in the picture – first, notice that the third-floor windows of the house on the left have human-shaped columns.  (Rather artful columns, at that.)  The houses were built to an older, more human scale – part of a recognizable European tradition.  The hulking airship looms over this landscape, its scale larger, its design clearly modern. 

Also interesting – any passers-by in front of one of the homes could tip his hat and be recognized, and see who was within.  There is no such potential human interaction with the airship; it is completely indifferent to the people waving below.

The rain, too, is symbolic of both a passing storm, and of new beginnings. Though ponderous, the airship is moving, while the people below are not.  One cannot help but think that Willink thought that technology was moving forward, regardless of its impact on human beings and the changes it would bring. 

There is about Willink’s pictures a feeling that all of its component parts are made of different paintings.  Look at the buildings, the dirigible, the people – they are all made with very hard lines that separate each component from every other component.  It is this sense of isolation in a crowded world that is, to my eye, the most interesting and individual characteristic of Willink’s work.  At times, it seems as if he presents a world of wonders that is completely incapable of supporting a human connection.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: A View of the Town (1934)

I have only recently become aware of the art of Albert Carel Willink (1900 – 1983), a Dutch artist who worked in a style that he called imaginary realism.  Not all of it is to my taste, to be sure, as it has a decidedly surrealist bent.  However, the imagery is interesting and his technique remarkable.

Willink was born in Amsterdam; his father was an amateur artist who indulged his son’s artistic interests.  The younger Willink at first thought he would make a career in medicine, but in 1918-19 Willink went to the Technische Hogeschool in Delft to study architecture.  He then moved on to Germany, where he tried to get an academic training in a Düsseldorf atelier, but was not admitted.  Later he studied for a short time at the Staatliche Hochschule in Berlin.

It is a tragedy that a painter of Willink’s talent was imprisoned by his particular historical moment.  For artists like Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, it’s irrelevant that they are talentless, as Modernist expectations are naturally low.  But for a man like Willink who could really paint, it’s depressing to watch him waste his talent on such shallow gamesmanship.

Willink initially marked time with expressionist and abstract painting, but by the mid-1920s he created his own style, imaginary realism.  The best way of thinking about Willink is that he was an artist who could really paint intent on making some of the most inventive dreamscapes of the Twentieth Century – Dali, without the nonsense, pretention and bombast.  He also seemed to be obsessed with beautiful, imposing buildings, and how they scaled against the human form.

Willink died in Amsterdam having lived through all of the significant artistic and historical events of the last century.  Some of his canvases almost seem like an attic filled with mid-century triumphs and anxieties.

Today’s painting, View of the Town, painted in 1934, is by any critical yardstick a masterpiece.  It’s not simply that Willink beautifully rendered the details of the building, the cobblestone street and the wall in the distance, but also that he was able to create an entire mood through the skill of his composition and the technique of his lighting.

The broad expanse of street, with its looming shadows, creates a sense of anxiety and unease.  The absence of people adds to the overall menacing aspect, as does the fact that nothing is visible inside of any of these windows.

A sense of expectation is also created by the approaching storm, which he painted not just in the sky, but with his shades of gray upon the landscape itself.  This muted palette, open composition and feeling of dread anticipation all result in a picture that is beautiful, ethereal and disquieting. 


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving at The Jade Sphinx

Today’s Thanksgiving treat is an illustration from William Joyce’s delightful A Day With Wilbur Robinson.

If I may intrude with some autobiography, it has been an interesting year for your correspondent and his loved ones.  We’ve suffered loss within the family, have faced a number of pressures in our businesses, and have watched with dismay as a global situation seemed to get progressively worse.

But, for all of that, we are still happy.  Trite as this sounds (and trust me, I do know it sounds trite), as I get older I really do believe that there is no way to happiness, and that happiness is simply the way.  I am wonderstruck by our mere existence, and wouldn’t have it any other way.  Irony and ennui will never seep into our bones.  Despite the many negatives that life throws at us, we are grateful for our time, for being together, and for the miracle of life. 

My goal during the past year of The Jade Sphinx has been to help, to some degree, to illustrate that miracle, and to help illustrate how that miracle works.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  I think we can now safely say we are on our way to the holiday season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rise of the Guardians Opens Today

It is not often that an animated film is as thematically rich, filled with fully-rounded characters and as frankly moving as Rise of the Guardians, opening today and based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood series.  While many (if not most) animated films at least achieve a level of sentiment through forced or cheaply manipulative means, Rise presents a level of richness and complexity that is seldom found even in today’s adult film fare.  Rise presents issues of love and loss, life and death, the persistence of memory, the power of belief and the measure of identity; for all of its high spirits and freewheeling shenanigans, there is also a surprising vein of melancholy.  It is a film not to be missed, one that can be savored by both children and adults alike, albeit for different reasons.

The Guardians – both the books and film – represent a dramatic change in Joyce’s oeuvre.  Over the past decades the scope of his stories and the emotional weight of his work have increased in heft and urgency.  Joyce’s early work was often pitched in a minor key – problems, when they existed at all, were usually expelled by an afternoon with friends or by dancing the hokey pokey.  However, life and time have left their mark on the artist, and he has become engaged with larger scale questions, such as the nature of sorrow, the pursuit of happiness and their balance in the lives of both children and adults.

If this sounds weighty for a children’s movie, you haven’t been paying attention.  Joyce’s long-term concern has always been the very alchemy of happiness, how it functions and how it survives.  His is a unique contemporary voice in that he is devoid of irony, sweet in his sincerity, delighted by his passions and fueled by its sense of wonder.

Rise of the Guardians is an independent entity from Joyce’s current, ongoing Guardians of Childhood series.  The book chronicles how the great figures of children’s folklore – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Sandman, among others – band together under the guidance of the Man in the Moon to protect the children of the Earth.  Rise takes place several hundreds of years after the book series, with the Guardians already in place and working as a (somewhat argumentative) team.

Rise is told from the point of view of a new character, Jack Frost, the spirit of winter, who is recruited by the Guardians to join their number in a renewed battled against Pitch – also known as the Boogeyman.  It can be regarded as the final origin story for the Guardians, and the starting point for a series of animated adventures.  (One hopes.)  The screenplay, by David Lindsay-Abaire, skillfully mixes comedy and pathos, as well as action scenes and intimate moments that linger in the memory. 

Rise boasts a charming score by Alexandre Desplat, and a closing song performed by soprano Renee Fleming.  Already, the filmmakers win points for creating an animated fantasy that does not include jarring (and ugly) rap and hip hop numbers, fart jokes and puerile pop cultural references.  In an era of animated films that date badly scant months after they are released, Rise will be entertaining children for decades to come.

Rise features a host of spectacular voice performances, starting with Alec Baldwin as Santa Claus.  Baldwin plays the jolly old elf with a heavy Russian accent (as described by Joyce in the books), and seems to be having so much fun, one wonders if he paid Dreamworks in order to do it.  In what is perhaps a nod to his role as announcer for the New York Philharmonic on WNYC, he often uses the names of Russian composers instead of expletives – most wonderfully thundering “Rimsky Korsakov!” when falling down. 

Hugh Jackman is an amusing, brawling Easter Bunny – a significant change of the character from Joyce’s books.  Where Joyce presents the Bunny as something of a furry Mr. Spock, Jackman’s Bunny is a smart-talking Australian tough guy in constant competition against Baldwin’s Santa.  Their backbiting rivalry is one of the chief joys of the film.

Isla Fisher gives voice to the Tooth Fairy, a role written as sweeter and less formidable than her book counterpart.  This works wonderfully well in the context of the film, her warm accessibility balances the more antic vocalizations of Baldwin and Jackman.

However, the two finest performances in the film belong to Chris Pine as Jack Frost and Jude Law as Pitch.   Pine plays Frost with both an edgy insouciance and a wounded melancholy.  Frost is the spirit of winter, but has no memory of his past or sense of purpose.  Worse still, unlike other Guardians, people cannot see him.  Because children do not believe in him with the same fever as Santa or the Bunny, he is incorporeal and invisible.  There is a moment about midway through the film when he can be seen by a child for the first time that had your correspondent blubbering into coat sleeve – it’s a fine performance that is beautifully animated.

Law as Pitch comes very close to stealing the film – it is simply the best vocal performance in an animated film since Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille.  Law shows remarkable vocal range – sinister, seductive, anguished and afraid.  The filmmakers also changed the visual conception of Pitch from that of the novels for the better: he is quite baroque in Joyce’s books, and in the film he is long and sleek in a flowing robe.  Horse-faced with tiny, yet evil looking teeth and a passel of evil stallions (literally night-mares), Pitch is a remarkable creation.

Of course, there are quibbles.  Rise is directed with energy by Peter Ramsey, but one cannot help but think that under the baton of someone like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton or Steven Spielberg, what now glows would actually shimmer. The action is, to an aged viewer like myself, sometimes too frenetic by half, and I wish that the art direction mirrored Joyce’s earlier books (like his masterful Santa Calls), but these are all minor carps.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is the Frost-Pitch duality.  Both suffer the same problem: they are largely invisible because fewer and fewer children believe in them.  While Frost is wounded by this, his natural inclination is to meet the situation with a sense of fun; Pitch to terrify children into belief.  What Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay does so beautifully is realize that the existential pain is nearly the same for both.  In his monologues, Pitch is nearly as sympathetic as he is menacing, and Law manages to milk that emotional current beautifully.

Finally, the film also seems to be an assertion of the fundamental tenant of Joyce’s overarching philosophy: that high spirits, a sense of fun and a touch of panache is enough to keep even the darkest spirits at bay.  Let’s hope he’s right.

Rise of the Guardians is the perfect holiday film and comes highly recommended.